Who: Jenni Lyons and Mike Burns of Happy Leaf Kombucha What: Organic, small-batch kombucha and taproom Where: Denver, Colorado’s River North Art District Read the series: Part One and Part Two
Maybe you haven’t tasted it, but at least you’ve heard about kombucha by now. Some of us are even brewing it at home. Emma shared a detailed tutorial on how to make kombucha that gave me a little more confidence to try making it myself. For those of us who aren’t homebrewers, though, there are now multiple options to purchase kombucha at local grocers.
If you’ve ever wondered how this fermented tea is made and how it makes its way to the bottle, read along as I tour Happy Leaf Kombucha’s brewery. Let’s see what it takes to make small-batch, handcrafted kombucha on a larger scale, complete with an epic, industrial-sized scoby.
Start with the Right Ingredients
Mike Burns and Jenni Lyons began their kombucha-making journey many years ago, even though they only recently opened their brewery and taproom business in 2013. The couple has always chosen locally sourced, organic ingredients to make their kombucha at home, so when they branched out to make kombucha on a larger scale, adhering to that philosophy was non-negotiable.
The name, Happy Leaf, is aptly chosen. Only non-GMO, pesticide-free, organic ingredients are used to make their kombucha. Happy leaves make for happy kombucha drinkers. I can attest that their kombucha is the best in town. It is vibrantly aromatic, fresh, and rich in flavor for these reasons. And, no, they didn’t bribe me with cases of kombucha to make that comment.
Stay Innovative with Flavor Combinations
Mike and Jenni’s love of the arts and appreciation for the myriad flavors within the culinary spectrum permeate into their flavor choices for their kombucha. From their mango-rose kombucha to a version made with citrus and hops, Happy Leaf is constantly experimenting with interesting combinations. They have made well over 150 different flavors of kombucha and change their taproom pours every Wednesday.
Cultivate a Healthy Work Culture
The quality behind Happy Leaf begins with great ingredients and continues with caring employees, who take pride in what they do. Everyone wears multiple hats and helps out, where and when it is needed. I saw this when I toured their facility. Mike was meeting with suppliers, networking with local businesses, filling and capping the latest kombucha batch, and simultaneously walking me through the steps of his craft.
I started my tour on a bottling day, so the energy level was high, as expected. Although there is constant movement at the brewery, since a batch of kombucha is always fermenting, Mike and Jenni imbue the working environment with their go-with-the-flow demeanor and lighthearted laughter. The place is quite calming, despite how busy the production line is. And they play great music.
Mike and Jenni of Happy Leaf Kombucha have created over 150 flavor combinations of their kombucha; however, they bottle only two varieties for commercial sale at local grocers: Cranberry Lavender and Hibiscus Lemon Ginger.
1 of 35
Only a quick few steps from the taproom is Happy Leaf’s brewing facility. There is always action in the brewery, since they supply local grocers with their two bottled kombuchas, and they keep several weekly rotating kombucha flavors on tap.
2 of 35
Happy Leaf uses every possible amount of space in their brewing facility. Here, I am perched atop a storage loft, looking down onto the main work floor, where Mike and Erik are bottling up the latest batch of Hibiscus Lemon Ginger kombucha.
3 of 35
Happy Leaf sources from a local organic tea company out of the town of Boulder, Teatulia. I actually brew their teas at home. Teatulia specially orders tea for Happy Leaf and provides them with the freshest possible tea. Mike mentioned that as soon as Teatulia finishes drying the tea leaves, they send Happy Leaf the tea within three days. There is no fresher tea than this, and you can really taste it.
4 of 35
After the tea is brewed, it is then sweetened with a little sugar and pumped into a fermentation tank, where starter tea from the previous batch and the “scoby” permanently reside.
5 of 35
The tea ferments for about for about three weeks. Mike is checking in on the scoby and the fermentation process. He rolled back the protective cover, so that I could take a peek. This former dairy tank holds about 1,000 gallons, or about 60 kegs, of liquid.
6 of 35
This is the largest scoby I have ever seen. When you make kombucha at home, the scoby is the size of the diameter of the fermentation jar, which is usually just about four inches. This scoby is SIX FEET ACROSS. I had visions of falling into the tank. Glad that didn’t happen.
7 of 35
Jenni brought out some slices from the scoby. Did you know that it is completely edible? She slices them thin like apples, tosses in some spices, and bakes them. They have the flavor and texture of apple pie, and she affectionately calls them, “Scoby Snacks.” I am sad I didn’t get to try some.
8 of 35
This is the opposite side of the brewery, where the “brite tanks” are housed. These glycol-lined, stainless steel tanks maintain a constant temperature of about 38 degrees. The fermented tea is transferred to these tanks, where it cools. This is when the flavoring occurs. Mike and Jenni use a wide variety of flavorings for their kombuchas, including fruits, herbs, flowers, and even roots. Mike jokingly said that you can flavor kombucha with almost anything, except meat.
9 of 35
The cooled tea hangs out in these tanks, anywhere from 2 to 5 days, until the flavors have integrated. The kombucha is stored at a low temperature, so that any added fruit doesn’t further ferment, insuring no added alcohol. Then the tea is strained into kegs and later bottled.
10 of 35
This is the storage room, where all of the tea, equipment, tools, and flavoring agents are stored.
11 of 35
Happy Leaf sources from local businesses, when possible, and they always choose non-GMO, organic products.
12 of 35
These are some freshly dehydrated lemons, destined for the Hibiscus Lemon Ginger kombucha.
13 of 35
One of the flavors I enjoyed in the taproom was Cranberry Lavender. This is about 25 pounds of culinary lavender from France. It smells absolutely heavenly.
14 of 35
Jenni showed me some of their dried hibiscus leaves. They were so vibrant and aromatic.
15 of 35
Every staff member wears multiple hats in both the taproom and the brewery. Here, Julia, the kitchen manager for the café, is putting away items in the storage room.
16 of 35
A close-up of some of the tools, vessels, and hoses that are used on a daily basis.
17 of 35
These growlers are for sale in the taproom. The initial purchase price includes a fill-up from the taps. You are able to refill your growler at the taproom or stop into any shops, cafés, breweries, or coffee shops in town that carry Happy Leaf on tap.
18 of 35
Julia’s menu constantly changes, along with the season, and she incorporates a lot of local products into her delicious and creatively plated menu selections.
19 of 35
Happy Leaf not only makes kombucha, but they also tinker with water kefir and ginger beer. Here, Jenni is checking in on some fermenting water kefir. I hadn’t ever tired it until my visit. Salted Grapefruit was available on tap, and after a taste, I took home a growler full of it.
20 of 35
After the fermented tea has had time to integrate with the flavors, in this case, ginger, lemon, and hibiscus, the finished kombucha is carbonated and strained into kegs. These kegs are kept at the same temperature as the bright tanks, about 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
21 of 35
Happy Leaf keeps six varieties of kombucha, ginger beer, or water kefir on tap.
22 of 35
The day I toured the brewery was bottling day. Mike, Erik, and Brice filled, capped, cleaned, and boxed over 1,000 bottles of Hibiscus Ginger Lemon kombucha.
23 of 35
Brice is filling empty bottles with kombucha, delivered straight from the keg. I also think that having a beard is a job requirement for the guys at Happy Leaf. No complaints here.
24 of 35
Every aspect of the kombucha-making process is done by hand.
25 of 35
After the bottles are filled, they are wiped down and capped.
26 of 35
Many bottling operations have machines that fill, cap, and box their products quickly and automatically. Since everything is done by hand, there are always two full-time brewers present in the brew room.
27 of 35
Happy Leaf’s finished kombucha measures only 0.5% residual alcohol, which is the industry limit to be considered a non-alcoholic beverage.
28 of 35
29 of 35
This is the hallway between the storage room and the brew room.
30 of 35
The finished boxes are stacked, placed on pallets, wrapped, and prepped for delivery.
31 of 35
The Happy Leaf logo is a drawing of the Minister of Longevity.
32 of 35
The kombucha that isn’t bottled is stored in kegs and either poured at local shops and cafés or served on tap here in Happy Leaf’s taproom and eatery.
33 of 35
…because everyone needs a little diversion every once in a while. A little levity in the hallway between the taproom and the brewery.
34 of 35
After touring the brewery with Mike and Jenni, I refilled my growlers with some Mango Rose kombucha and Salted Grapefruit water kefir.
35 of 35
How Happy Leaf Makes Their Kombucha
STEP ONE: Making the Tea
The brewers make a large batch of tea, a mix of green and black, and add just enough sugar in order to supply enough food to keep the culture alive. The freshly brewed tea is then cooled to room temperature and poured into the fermentation tank. The large fermentation tank holds about 1,000 gallons, or 60 kegs’ worth, of soon-to-be kombucha.
STEP TWO: Fermenting the Tea
Now is when the action occurs, and things get a little, well, weird. A culture is added to the tea, which grows into a large scoby, an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” This scoby eventually grows to cover the entire surface of the fermenting tea, forming a protective cap that keeps both oxygen and unfriendly bacteria out.
Both lactobacillus bacteria (the same bacterial derivative that aids in making sourdough bread and kimchi) and yeasts comprise the scoby, and those two components work together to produce tart, fizzy kombucha. The yeasts consume the sugar, resulting in the byproducts of carbon dioxide and alcohol. The bacteria within the scoby then breaks down the alcohol, converting it into acetic acid. The final residual alcohol is 0.5%, which is the threshold to be considered a non-alcoholic beverage. See how the bacteria and yeasts work together?
Are You Ready to See a 200-Pound Scoby? Here You Go!
A Scoby of Epic Proportions – I’ll bet you’re curious what an industrial-sized scoby looks like. I had to take a peek, myself. As you can see, it is a bubbly, circular mass that is three inches thick and spans six feet!Trying to pick up the scoby yourself would prove challenging: it weighs anywhere between 170 to 200 pounds. If you were to look at a cross-section of the developing kombucha in the tank, you’d see about foot’s worth of trailing yeast strands, suspended under a 3-inch layer of the scoby. The rest of the liquid in the tank looks like green tea.
This entire process is a waiting game that lasts about three weeks, and then Mike tests the level of pH within the kombucha. He is aiming for a drop in pH to 2.7. When the pH level is attained, and the kombucha tastes balanced, the kombucha is ready for flavoring.
STEP THREE: Adding the Flavorings
The fully fermented kombucha is then transferred to a stainless steel, glycol-lined “brite tank,” which is basically a large cooling tank, which keeps the kombucha at a steady 38°F. The temperature is cold so that no further fermentation occurs, if, say, fruit is added to the kombucha. Various flavors, like fruits, herbs, flowers, or roots, are then added to the kombucha. Depending on the potency of the flavor additive, it can take anywhere between two to five days for the flavors to fully integrate.
STEP FOUR: Straining and Carbonating
The flavored and fermented kombucha can now be strained and pumped into kegs along with carbon dioxide, which provides the bubbly fizz. Unlike brewing kombucha at home, where you must wait one to three days for carbonation to naturally occur, Happy Leaf “force carbonates” their kombucha, quickly adding the carbonation, just when it is ready to be bottled.
STEP FIVE: Bottling
The flavored, carbonated kombucha can now be either hand-pumped into bottles or kept in keg format. Since Happy Leaf doesn’t have any automated equipment, the labeling, bottling, capping, and boxing are all done by hand. The kegs and bottled kombucha are all kept at a steady 36-40°F to ensure freshness.
What’s Next for Happy Leaf?
Happy Leaf is always testing out new flavors for their kombuchas, and the best way to experience them for yourself is to visit their taproom and café. I recommend enjoying a flight of kombucha and pairing it with a “culture plate,” an assortment of pickled and fermented vegetables, or a cheese plate. Happy Leaf is also partnering with American Cultures, a local food truck, where they’ll be selling kombucha frozen yogurt around town this summer.
Happy Leaf is social! → Follow Happy Leaf’s adventures and stay connected with their events and future product placements on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.
Thanks so much for the tour, Jenni and Mike! A special thanks to the other team members, Frankie, Rachel, Brice, and Erik!